The REAL news on What's Happening?? in the postal service

In April 2008, the pamphlet “What’s Happening?? The Truth About Work…& the Myth of ‘Work-Life Balance’ ” mistakenly contained an over-edited version of its leading article, “It’s Better than Walking the Streets: Keeping Spirits Up in a Royal Mail Delivery Office.” As editor, I sincerely apologise for this error and am very grateful to at least have the opprtunity to present the correct version on the Solidarity website. Sheila Cohen. Please read on….  

“It’s better than walking the streets”: Keeping spirits up in a Royal Mail Delivery Office

Slogging your guts out

I am a delivery postman in a Somerset village, Woolavington, on the Polden Hills. There are three of us and we work from a wooden shed at the back of a Co-op Post Office and Store. Our main office, 120 strong, is Bridgwater, five miles away, where I perform overtime once a week.


Working for Royal Mail can still be an enjoyable and worthwhile job. Last year in a single daily delivery duty, Woolavington 1, the council estate, 559 ‘calls’, I gingerly moved to safety two frogs fucking on a doorstep, heard three skylarks singing over different streets, and heard a ‘weep weep!’ cry over my head and looked two hundred feet up to see a raven chasing off a buzzard……..and people, overwhelmingly working-class Somerset, are friendly and fine, except when the clichés come popping out:


‘You’re late today postman!’

‘You can take it back if it’s a bill!’

‘All junk mail I expect, you know where that’s going!’

‘Where’s my lottery cheque?’


During my two Woolavington ‘walks’, I can see Cheddar Gorge and the Mendips, the Blackdowns, Brent Knoll, Ham Hill, Glastonbury Tor,  Brean Down, Steep Holm, Cardiff and  Aberthaw Power Station across the Bristol Channel. Beautiful! But I walk or cycle between ten and seventeen miles a day, and when I get home I crash straight out and sleep for three hours.


This is because the job is getting harder and the mail has massively increased and shows little sign of abating. Personal mail is still falling but E-bay internet personal packets have gone up nearly 20% in the last year, and business ‘Direct Mail’, both letters and A4 ‘flats’, must be four times what it was ten years ago. Unaddressed ‘Door to Door’ leaflets, three a week for every house, complete the bag-fills: maybe seven or eight bags now compared to three or four. Tuesdays and Saturdays used to be light days: not now, not ever. As from the end of our 2007 national dispute, we have to start later, so we finish too late to enjoy anything else. Some days I start at 6.30am and get home at 5pm.


All of us are in the Communication Workers Union bar one, who was expelled back along for BNP activities. There are three managers in Bridgwater Delivery Office and one ‘acting’ manager, who is still a CWU member. When Bridgwater struck officially for three days in June 2007, before the national strikes, only two CWU members crossed the local picket line. Our reputation has been a well-organised union office.


Pay and Overtime

We get £8.40 pence an hour now. Not bad for unskilled, but are postal workers unskilled? There are sorters, fifty-five or sixty years of age or more, at the Bristol Mail Centre who can name County and Postcodes for every town and most large villages in the whole of Britain! Many of us remember when basic pay was really bad, and when, ten years ago, we were still working a 41- hour six-day week!


The basic pay rise, and the five day week, have come at a price: Saturday time is now normal, Bank Holiday entitlements have been cut, overtime at 2am nightimes is the same as 2pm afternoons, and overtime after ten hours is now less than the hourly rate! Yes, overtime is still a big issue: its allocation is fair in some offices, unfair in most: some offices still exist where a tradition of union control means that the CWU reps sort this out; others have agreements, ‘Aggregate Overtime’ arrangements, where after a month the list is reversed and those with the least get asked first. Some still do overtime up to the 70- hour weekly limit, and an occasional blind eye is turned to an illegal excess. These docket-grabbers are envied and scorned in ample measures. Why do they do it? Because they are living above their basic means; they get excited at an extra large pay packet that would still be peanuts to professionals; they unconsciously love the job; they don’t want to go home: take your pick! Some ‘docket-grabbers’, it has to be said, remain militant trades unionists.


What the future may hold troubles us these days. Ten years of dodgy ‘productivity’ schemes, cutting night shifts and full-time jobs; tougher sick and discipline regimes, cause good union members to hope for that redundancy cheque. This is not just a story of poor national union leadership. Far too many start an hour early everyday, unpaid; use their cars on delivery, uninsured for theft; work through part or all of a main 40-minute meal break; risk their job by leaving their unlocked pouch, trolley or van to deliver a road in one go.


In strong union offices, these changes come slower and morale drops less quickly: a clear majority are still up for a scrap, locally or nationally, when the CWU gives a lead. Burslem, for example, has obviously been an inspiration to Royal Mail workplaces throughout Staffordshire, and now nationally. In the other offices, with a weak union rep or no rep at all, managers do what they like, sack whom they see fit, and workers do what they are told, treated like the old Secondary Modern ‘C’-streamers.


Full-time and part-time

Five years ago Bridgwater had no part-timers: now there are nine, and these were all previously 40-hour duties. In June 2007 there was a local three-day strike against the latest plans to downgrade full-time duties to 28-hour ones. The result was a draw, one full-time job went part-time; the other two were re-allocated to two full-time ‘modern apprentices’. Part-time delivery duties can make sense where there are new housing developments, for ‘socially/friendly’ start and finish times; or, in my case, as ‘day-off’ cover in a small village office. But continuously cutting back to 28-hour posts just means that there are fewer Inward Primary sorters, so everyone gets out even later, while the delivery is still really a full-time one. And in a weak office, the new part-timer might come under pressure to finish the delivery without claiming overtime, in order to please the manager and get that permanent contract or pass that trial period.


Rotations and Fixed Duties

5 years ago an office the size of Bridgwater, then 140-strong, would only close on a Saturday night. Twelve night turns, eight late/day turns, a few 4-day weeks, rural deliveries, town deliveries; most of these on rotation, to share out the earnings and the variety of work. In 2008 few delivery offices anywhere have night turns, and fixed duties are the norm. This leads to ‘individual’ feeling where a CWU member feels they ‘own’ their duty, and jealously guard it. With rotating duties and duty ‘sections’, he or she doesn’t own anything apart from what can be achieved through union control and workmate solidarity. Offices that keep rotations are doing well.


Flexible Working, Team Working, Work-Time Learning

Workmate solidarity has nothing whatsoever to do with managers’ plans to insert ‘Teamworking’ into our lives, the ‘Creeps Charter’ that we stopped in the 1996 strike. Now the plan is dormant. However, the flexible-working part of last years’ dispute deal COULD bring in teamworking in times of maximum summer leave and abnormal sickness. The teamworking paradigm of six posties regularly doing an extra walk FOR NOTHING would have serious consequences for our health, and the jobs of ‘Leave Reserves’. The ‘team’ delivering that extra walk from a bus will have a youngest member, and oldest member, a fastest member, a slowest member, and a member that cares little for safety rules and agreements. Solidarity?


Work-Time Learning entered our lives as ‘Customer First’ 15 years ago. For half an hour on a Tuesday morning at 7am, a manager reads the latest Royal Mail news. It is often ineptly delivered, and Royal Mail will not pay for their managers to go on presentation courses. The results are often unintentionally hilarious for those who bother to pay attention, for the rest their eyes are on the door. There are some offices where the CWU Rep. has equal billing in these sessions, so there is obviously a point and an educational result. It’s just that Bridgwater isn’t one of them. In our Polden hillside redoubt of Woolavington, meanwhile, we don’t see a manager once a quarter, let alone once a week. 


Vans, trolleys, bikes and boots

The cessation of the daily second delivery some years ago meant longer single deliveries, the maximum allowed by agreement with the CWU is 3.5 hours. Trolleys, some electric, have increased in town centres, while the latest bikes have two side panniers that are supposed to be used solely for wet-weather gear and a helmet. Panniers that as managers probably realised, are often stuffed with mail to enable a ‘runner’ to make fewer journeys back to the office or the public red-box pouch-drop. Bob Gibson , Delivery Offices’ CWU National Officer, and Dave Joyce our Health and Safety Officer, have negotiated an excellent agreement which drastically curtails maximum shoulder pouch weights for walkers. The more pouches you carry, the less the weight limit.  But how do you get your workmates to abide by these rules, when they are put under pressure, OR when they put themselves under pressure?


Sometimes, a weary soul forgets to check his or her pouches before returning to the office, forgets that a stray letter, put there for later delivery to the correct part of the walk, and gets caught by a managers’ official ‘pouch check’. The result can be ‘Wilful Delay of the Mail’, and dismissal, if the disciplinary regime is tough; or negligence, if the regime is reasonable, and then a two-year warning follows. Very few are up to regular ‘half-a-walk’ overtime now, because 1.they are already knackered; 2. it is already two o’clock, and there are children to be claimed from school; 3. in winter they will be delivering an insufficiently-known walk in the dark


New Machinery

In the Bristol Mail Centre, there are huge rotating drum machines to sort packets and thick letters from machinable letters; IMP/Integrated Mail Processing machines to sort the mail-inward (for delivery), or outward (for dispatch)- into detailed postcode bundles and trays; A4 Flat-letter sorting machines; conveyor belts and an automated trolley system. However, there is a new machine currently on trial that, if our union leaders don’t soon come to their senses and really FIGHT for a 35-hour gross week, can mean 20,000 jobs going in our already depleted delivery offices.


This is the Walk Sequencing Machine, which can lay out in a tray part of a delivery ‘walk’ so that all we have to do is take each letter and throw it into every adjacent address slot on the Walk Frame one after the other. Time saved per delivery duty that is 100% walk-sequenced? Maybe an hour or an hour and a half per duty? This issue played no formal part in last years dispute, or its conclusions. It doesn’t look good, does it?


Talking, Shouting and Swearing: tightening up on discipline

New zealous managers tend to forget any Entry Course mention of the CWU, and forget as a result that there are rules, agreements, and guidelines, of which managers and CWU reps should be joint custodians. Many concern health and safety. When the pressure is on, and an office is short-staffed, a blind eye can be turned to a massively overweight pouch, because the manager knows he or she will hurry back to clear another walk on overtime; or rural deliveries are told they don’t have to wait for the last missort run, even though that means first class mail will fail.


Many believe that mangers threaten trialists with the sack unless they get faster or book less overtime. Or insist that pre-booked hospital appointment is taken as annual leave, when this should be PAID leave. Or a close relative’s funeral is to be attended as unpaid leave when it should be paid. Or, on a day when the CWU Rep is away, a sick absence interview might take place when a final warning is given, even though the absences were due to an accident at work, and so shouldn’t be counted.


Friendship and Happines and a Fighting Spirit

Delivery Offices are very sociable workplaces: the only noises in Bridgwater are human. For the last 30 years I have expressed myself more completely to my fellow postal workers than in any other social sphere. The laughs we’ve had! Bridgwater used to be an office where I’ve seen a dozen of us doubled up and incapable for minutes on end: rarely would a manger stop this, they would just shake their heads.


Things are different now. Managers fear that sociable banter is dangerous: friends of mine on the Inward Primary Sorting frames have been told off for swearing to each other; talking ‘too loudly’; talking and turning around to look at the person he was talking too; and even for talking at all! And telling your best friend to ‘fuck of’ in a loud but friendly manner shouldn’t be a disciplinary offence. Keeping our right to have a ‘Crack’ is as important a battle as pay or pensions.


This is the age-old fight, to retain one’s soul on the job, which Marx described as already being lost in those 19th century Satanic Mills. In the modern-day Postal Factories like Bridgwater Delivery Office, we havn’t lost our souls, or our happiness at work, or our love of a good picket-line. But a few more years like the last few, without a clear-cut WIN in a national strike that our fighting-qualities deserve, might change all that for ever. I don’t want that to happen, because we have inspired so many sadder trades unionists over the last twenty years to refuse to surrender: I think I’ve been through twelve different strikes, all won or drawn!


I could talk about the creeping privatisations and joint ventures; the ‘Downstream Access’ deals with firms like TNT and Business Post; the loss, sorry I mean surrender, of Sunday Collections, our support for the Labour Government; European Free Market policies. But I won’t now.


We fight for a dream or we lose

Royal Mail’s most militant workers need to get in touch and organise! But for what? Well, short term, to make sure we WIN our inevitable national strike over pensions, but, long-term, it can’t just be to hang on and hope. If you’ve read this far, you’re one of a crowd of militants who COULD join together and recreate and strengthen those old UPW Guild Socialist ideals of a Post Office run by the workforce. A Post Office with elected and recallable managers and economists; of a Post Office public service run by the public for the public, free for the unemployed, pensioners, job seekers, and perhaps lovers; a Post Office fully-funded by the government according to the directives of trades unions and the public community. Needless to say, not a government that throws billions of pounds of our money at banks, nuclear weapons research and wars.


No! This isn’t actually a dream at all: it’s a kind of common-sense. In Royal Mail in Bristol and Somerset, it can be deduced from the knowledge, skills and militancy of the current non-managerial workforce, deduced also from a successful alliance with communities that could begin, even in 2008, to re-build a little of our new society within the shell of the old.


Dave Chapple

Local CWU Rep, Woolavington

Local CWU Rep, Bridgwater, 1989-2003

Branch Chair, Bristol and District Amalgamated.